If you’ve ever moved to Denver, Santa Fe or another city with a high elevation, the first cake you made in your new home probably didn’t turn out so well. But take heart: Most likely, it was not your fault. You can blame it on the high altitude. But don’t worry—there’s a solution! We’ll explain what’s happening in the first place and how you can overcome the challenges of high altitude baking.
Why your cakes fall flat
Baking at a higher altitude—at least 3,000 ft. above sea level—causes different chemical reactions than baking at sea level, resulting in cakes that wind up pancake-flat. While you may not think of bakers as scientists, there is actually a lot of science behind the art of baking. The ingredients react a certain way under certain conditions, and if conditions or something else change, the reactions change, and you end up with a different result.
In this case, atmospheric pressure is the wild card. There’s less of it at higher altitudes because the air is thinner. This causes water to boil at a lower temperature and evaporation to occur faster. The gases from leavening agents that cause dough to rise (baking powder, baking soda and.yeast, to name a few) end up expanding too quickly, making cakes rise too early and then fall, like the one below did.
How to avoid It
It’s absolutely possible to bake the best-ever chocolate cake in Colorado Springs, Flagstaff or Reno. All you have to do is make a few adjustments in oven temperature, baking time and ingredient amounts. But here’s the key: Every city, home and kitchen is different, so what works for your neighbor may not work for you.
First, make the recipe as written to see which specific issues you run into. Then, make the recipe again using the smaller adjustment when given a range, because that’s all it might take to keep your cakes from falling flat. Keep baking until you get it right, making sure to take notes along the way so you remember how to do it right the next time.
Adjustment #1: Oven temperature
You’ll likely need to increase the oven temperature when baking at a higher altitude. This helps to set the structure of the cake before the cells expand too quickly. An increase of 15-25 degrees should do the trick. Don’t forget to preheat your oven fully, and use the middle rack to ensure even heating. And for added measure, use an auxiliary thermometer to double-check the actual temperature of your oven.
Adjustment #2: Baking time
If you increase the oven temperature, then you’ll also need to decrease the baking time. This one is self-explanatory. Since the temperature is higher, the cake doesn’t need to bake as long. Decreasing the bake time by 5 minutes is a good place to start.
Adjustment #3: Ingredients
Each ingredient plays an important role in the baking process, so small adjustments are needed to ensure a perfect, made-from-scratch cake in the mountains.
- Liquids: You will need to increase the liquids to prevent your cake from drying out. Since liquids evaporate faster in high altitudes, adding more liquid will keep your cake moist. Sometimes, it’s as simple as adding an extra egg—or using an extra-large egg instead of a large egg. (Speaking of eggs, ever wonder what the numbers on your egg carton mean?)
- Flour: You may need to slightly increase the amount of flour when baking at high altitude, especially for angel food or sponge cakes. Rapid expansion of those air cells can make the cake coarser even if it doesn’t make it fall, and you may need more flour to reach the same consistency. You won’t need much; just 1 extra tablespoon at 3,500 feet, and then one more tablespoon for every additional 1,500 feet. This tip is tricky, though. Sometimes you need to decrease the flour by about the same amount, because it can be drier at high altitudes and absorb more liquid. Experiment!
- Sugar: You’ll also need to decrease the amount of sugar called for in a recipe. Faster evaporation causes an increase in sugar concentration, which weakens a cake’s structure. Decreasing the sugar by about 1 tablespoon per cup will ensure the cake’s structure is strong enough.
- Baking powder: Decrease the baking powder, which is a leavening agent. Since leavening gases expand more quickly at higher altitudes, you don’t need as much of the agent. Reduce each teaspoon by 1/8 teaspoon at 3,000 feet and by 1/4 teaspoon at 7,000 feet.
- Egg whites: At a high altitude, you only need to beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Stiff peaks don’t work because the air they contain expands too quickly and makes your cake collapse. Hey, less work for you! And here’s a refresher on how to separate an egg.
Follow these guidelines, and you’re sure to master high altitude baking. Just remember: Practice makes perfect!